The case for climate change is mounted in visually breathtaking yet conventional fashion in “Chasing Ice.” Following the exhaustive efforts of photographer-scientist James Balog to capture irrefutable evidence of the world’s glaciers in retreat, first-time helmer Jeff Orlowski’s documentary supplies a heroic human-interest angle on global warming that’s ultimately less remarkable than the grandeur of its arctic imagery. Emphasis on the picture’s must-see time-lapse visuals could help National Geographic’s Sundance pickup overcome the usual theatrical-docu hurdles before edutainment/ancillary payoff.Orlowski structures his film around Balog’s appropriately titled Extreme Ice Survey, the most comprehensive and authoritative photographic study of glaciers ever attempted. Starting in 2007, the helmer (serving as his own d.p.) followed the mountaineering scientist and his crew all over Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and other icy regions, setting up cameras capable of photographing glaciers continuously from the same stationary vantage. Their results from roughly three years of continuous shooting are presented here, providing startling glimpses of what Balog terms the “canary in the climate coal mine.” In one of the crew’s (and the docu’s) early payoffs, they manage the rare feat of filming Greenland’s Store Glacier in the process of calving, as a giant, 300-foot-high mass of ice breaks away from the main shelf. Later in the film, the director will show the surface of a glacier dotted with holes and crevices as further proof of warmer temperatures brought on by an excess of greenhouse gases, though as various talking heads explain and corroborate, the problem is not just a rise in heat but an overall change in the basic physics, chemistry and air quality of the planet. Pic runs through a series of contentious soundbites from figures (including a heard-but-not-seen Rush Limbaugh) who dismiss the evidence for global warming as “garbage science.” The rather rote, half-hearted nature of this oppositional footage is matched by the pic’s predictable focus on Balog, whose all-consuming devotion to EIS, among other projects, has taken a severe physical toll. Yet despite having had numerous knee injuries and surgeries, he continues to soldier on tirelessly, shown here scaling sheer walls of ice or skirting the edge of a hundred-foot drop with his team. In cinematic terms, the touching testimonials from family and colleagues about Balog’s devotion to addressing the climate-change crisis pale significantly next to the fruits of his labor. “Chasing Ice’s” raison d’etre is easily the stunning EIS photography of glaciers receding worldwide; the painstakingly captured images are presented in time-lapse montages that proceed with a slight jerkiness, showing the gradual but inexorable reduction of enormous ice blankets into mere patches of white. Graphs, diagrams and other visual aids comparing glacier sizes from one year to the next are deftly deployed, lending credence to the alarming revelation that there has been as much glacier reduction in the past decade as in the preceding century. As is typical for PowerPoint-style documentaries in the vein of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the film ends with a call to action accompanied by a straining-for-poignance original tune; in this case it’s “Before My Time,” performed by Scarlett Johansson and written by J. Ralph, who also composed the score.
A National Geographic Films release of an Exposure production in association with Diamond Docs. (International sales: Submarine, New York.) Produced by Paula Dupre Pesmen, Jerry Aronson, Jeff Orlowski. Directed by Jeff Orlowski. Written by Mark Monroe.
Camera (color, HD), Jeff Orlowski; editor, Davis Coombe; music, J. Ralph; sound, David Levine, Dave Ruddick; sound designer, Dustin Cawood; re-recording mixer, Tom Myers; associate producers, Stacy Sherman, Billy Ray. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 24, 2012. Running time: 76 MIN.
James Balog, Adam Lewinter, Svavar Jonatansson, Tad Pfeffer, Jason Box.